How I Learned To Start Worrying and Fear the Bomb

How I Learned To Start Worrying and Fear the Bomb

Alex Hall discusses the probability of the end of the world

Early last week, Turkey shot down a Russian bomber which, according to Turkey, had penetrated Turkish airspace. This situation could get very serious for NATO very quickly. If Turkey, our NATO ally, got into a shooting war with Russia, it could easily drag in NATO member states – and the 60-70 U.S. nuclear weapons stored just 60 miles from the Syrian border. The Cold War era B-61 bombs stored in Turkey serve little military purpose beyond showing America’s continued support for Turkey. It is the location of these bombs that should scare us, just miles from the most active war-zone on earth with many radical militant groups and various state-backed parties vying for control. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, we are on the edge of a conflict with nuclear weapons on both sides of the engagement, making the stakes incredibly high.


Image credit: US Department of Defense

The downing of the Russian bomber by Turkey may be the best-publicised standoff between NATO and Russia, but it is certainly not the first. Over the past year, NATO has had to scramble its jets 400 times to intercept Russian military aircraft flying too close to NATO borders. The Russian government has threatened to increase the size of its nuclear arsenal in response to the proposed U.S. missile shield in Europe. Russia has also “increased flights of nuclear-enabled bombers across NATO territory and has added nuclear elements to some recent exercises,” according to the Financial Times.

Over the past 70 years we have come far too close to starting a nuclear war. The scariest part is that it’s usually an accident. During the Cuban missile crisis, the USS Beale dropped depth charges on a Russian submarine that got too close to the American blockade. The dummy depth charges dropped by the Beale were intended as a warning, but there was no way for the Russians to know this. Thinking he was being fired upon the Russian submarine captain ordered his 10-kiloton warhead armed and aimed at the American blockade. The only thing that prevented a nuclear war was the fact that the Russian sub’s second in command – Vasilii Arkhipov – refused to countersign the launch order.

Similarly, in 1983 a Russian early-warning system was falsely activated, indicating that multiple U.S. nuclear missiles were approaching Russia. The Russian base commander took a big risk in disobeying direct orders and not relaying the alarm up the chain of command, but his decision may have saved hundreds of millions of lives.

Even after the end of the Cold War, nuclear scares continued. In 1995 a Russian early-warning radar system detected a missile launch off the coast of Norway. This prompted Russian president Boris Yeltsin to put Russia’s nuclear arsenal of 4,700 missiles on alert. Fortunately they realised the error before pressing the button. The list of scares goes on and on – but it remains clear that the risk of conflict escalation is a very real threat.

Nuclear weapons remain a large part of defence policy, despite the fact that they do nothing to keep us safe from the vast majority of modern security threats. France’s nuclear arsenal failed to prevent the ISIS attacks on Paris, just as Britain’s nuclear weapons failed to prevent the 7/7 bombings. While a nuclear deterrent might discourage rational states from launching a first strike, the risks of accidental launches and attacks from rogue elements are still all too real. How would we deal with the situation if ISIS or another violent, nationless contingent got hold of nukes? The very existence of nuclear weapons leaves humanity on a knife edge of devastatingly high stakes.

We are very lucky that the world survived the many mistakes of the Cold War, but we may not be able to count on luck much longer.

Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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